“These services are not optional”

WATERVLIET – Dylan Goering ended up at St. Colman’s autism program in Watervliet as a last resort. The 12-year-old’s needs were too much for the small Green Island School District to handle and he was rejected by the local BOCES program for his aggression.

St. Colman’s seemed like a good choice, said her mother Amanda Nacco. Dylan adored his teachers, assistants, and classmates, and his communication and behavioral skills improved. Then COVID-19 arrived.

While other area schools have resumed full-time in-person learning five days a week, Dylan and his classmates have not had access to consistent services and full-time in-person instruction since. the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Due to staff turnover, Dylan missed occupational therapy, physical education and speech therapy services.

For children with autism, change is difficult, Nacco said. “Dylan adored his speech therapy teacher. They had an amazing bond. … I try to do some things at home with him, but clearly I’m not her, and he just doesn’t fit in.”

State and federal agencies have flooded public school districts with COVID-19 relief aid in an effort to maximize in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year, but those resources have not reached colleges. private institutions serving children with the most intensive needs.

Experts say remote learning has been particularly difficult for the nearly half a million New York students classified as disabled, who make up about 18% of the total K-12 student population.

When disabilities are identified, students receive Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, which detail the services and special education to which they are entitled. Those whose needs cannot be met by the local public school district are referred to state-approved private schools.

Next year, students with disabilities will be eligible for compensatory services to compensate for programs and services they missed during the pandemic, according to Randi Levine, director of policy for Advocates for Children New York.

“These services are not optional. Students with disabilities have a legal right to receive the services recommended to them. These are services they need to progress in their education,” Levine said.

At St. Colman’s, which offers two programs – one for children with autism and the other specializes in emotionally challenged students – a number of key staff left last August when public schools closed. resumed in-person teaching, according to Heather Worthington, director of St. Colman’s Autism Program.

Harsh working conditions and lower wages have made it nearly impossible to compete with school districts dangling hiring bonuses and other incentives, school officials say.

“To be perfectly honest, our staff can go to work at McDonald’s and earn more,” Worthington said.

There was a brief attempt to restore full-time programming in September, but due to security concerns the school quickly reverted to a hybrid model, involving three days a week of in-person learning, two days of distance education and strong parental involvement.

Job postings revealed few qualified candidates. Although school districts are legally obligated to ensure that IEP plans are adhered to, St. Colman’s requests for support from districts and local BOCES organizations — which are grappling with their own staffing shortages — have sparked a response “deer in the headlights,” Worthington said.

“We have speech and occupational therapy services in the building. … Although services are not necessarily provided as listed on the IEP, we are able to provide counseling to the teacher so that services are at least to be addressed, ”said Worthington.

A shortage of special education professionals exists in the sector, but in private special schools it has reached a crisis level, in part because the state tuition formula has not succeeded. meet the needs of providers, advocates say.

In this year’s historically high public education budget, public schools got an average 7% increase in state aid, while private special education providers received a 4% increase. tuition.

Specialized preschools are particularly underfunded, according to Advocates for Children. Prior to 2015, spending on special kindergartens had been frozen for six years. Since 2015, kindergartens have seen their tuition fees increase by 2% per year.

The pay gap for teachers between private special schools and public schools can reach tens of thousands of dollars, according to the organization.

Funding parity for private schools serving students with disabilities has long been a legislative priority for the Board of Regents and the state Department of Education, according to department officials.

A bill unanimously backed by both houses of the state legislature would have reformed the funding formula for state-supported private schools, correlating tuition increases with growth in state funding. State for public school districts.

Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed the legislation in December and instead announced a one-time cost-of-living tuition increase of 11%, a total state investment of $240 million, in the as part of its budget proposal.

“Throughout my tenure, I have made it a priority to listen to the disability community and provide the resources and support they need to thrive,” Hochul said in a statement.

State Sen. John W. Mannion, a Syracuse Democrat who sponsored the parity bill, said the 11% hike will provide much-needed help for special education programs this year, but providers will need a longer term solution.

“This governor, I think, gets it,” Mannion said. “She understands the importance of this…I know we can’t and schools can’t fight year after year for fair funding. We want it in the law….These kids deserve what other kids deserve. . “

Ahead of budget talks this year, state education officials are asking for $1.25 million to design a new tuition formula that aligns annual funding increases for special education providers with the growth of aid to public schools.

Department officials also asked the state to suspend the year-end “reconciliation process,” which holds private special schools accountable for their spending. If the allocated funds are not fully spent on eligible expenses within a certain time frame, a private school could see a reduction in its tuition rate per student.

In other words, if a school loses employees during the year and cannot immediately fill the positions, the program risks losing its funding the following year.

The state should also allow state-approved schools to spend five years of tuition revenue, state education officials said.

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